When Benni Cinkle was 13, she appeared in a YouTube music video that went viral, receiving over 200 million views. At first, Benni was ridiculed by millions around the world for her awkward dancing, often referred to as “That girl in pink that can’t dance.” They called her names and told her she should kill herself.
A few of the printable names she was called were “lame, terrible, awkward, horrible, stupid, freak, loser, awful, worthless, annoying, fat and ugly, dumb.” Other comments included, “She should probably look into suicide,” “Please just die” and “I’ll bet she wants to kill herself now.”
Did she let the jerks drag her down? Did she lose her self-esteem and get depressed? Did she commit suicide?
Instead of reacting defensively, Benni didn’t take it personally. She kept her spirits up. She met their criticism with humor, honesty and understanding. She was open and didn’t hide. Soon, anonymous cyber bullies became fans and Benni's online reputation as an approachable, down-to-earth teen began to grow. In the months following her unexpected popularity, Benni received tens of thousands of requests for advice from teens around the world.
Realizing she had been gifted with a platform that offered international reach, Benni decided to use her 15 minutes of fame for something positive. So she:
Started “That Girl in Pink Foundation” as a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of teen suicide. TGIP focuses on any issue that may directly or indirectly lead to teen suicide, including: Teen Depression, Bullying, Cyber-Bullying, Teen Self-Mutilation, Teen Gay/Lesbian Support, Child Violence, Sexual Abuse, Teen Dating Violence, Eating Disorders and Teen Pregnancy.
Authored “That Girl in Pink’s Internet Survival Guide,” offering teens strategies for handling life online.
Organized a flashmob dance to raise donations for American Red Cross Japan Earthquake Relief.
Organized a walk for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that included hundreds of kids from 14 countries walking with her, virtually.
Recorded her single, “Can You See Me Now,” and donated profits to TWLOHA and GLSEN.
Visited schools across the U.S. delivering her “Don’t Just Stand There” anti-bullying presentation.
Sue Shellenbarger’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Colleagues Who Can Make You Fat,” focuses on people at work who try to sabotage coworkers’ diets. People reported that colleagues and bosses made them uncomfortable admitting they were on a diet 23% of the time.
In contrast, dieters said they were uncomfortable admitting that they were dieting to people in personal life – friends, relatives and spouses – 63% of the time. That is, there are almost three times as many diet saboteurs among those who are closest to us.
Get upset because we’re spurning their offerings of fatty, starchy, sugary, calorie-loaded food.
Lecture that we’re harming our body by dieting.
The article says that these saboteurs usually mean well. I disagree. When diet saboteurs continue harassing and abusing us relentlessly, they don’t mean well. They’re narcissistic bullies who have their own agenda that they think is more important than ours. They’re righteous. They know better and they’re out to change us – usually by beating us into submission.
Typically, they try to sabotage our diets because:
They may feel abandoned because we no longer eat the same food with them.
They may be striking back because they take our change as a put down of their old habits.
They may feel jealous that they’re not losing weight.
They may see our being thinner as a threat.
They may simply not like us and are finding another reason, excuse or justification to mock, ridicule, or put us down.
People who are closest to us – toxic spouses, family, friends – are the most relentless saboteurs. Things are not as we would wish. Notice that I didn’t say, “Things are not as they should be.” Things are as they are. That’s not what’s wrong with this picture.
Of course, we can start resisting gently by asking them, one-to-one in private, to stop. Or we could ignore it or laugh it off in public. Those approaches become tests of them. Do they stop or do they identify themselves as bullies?
Jane’s sister, Betty, seemed to have been born with a vicious tongue. She attacked everyone relentlessly. Holidays with the extended family were a misery for Jane and her family. Nobody, not even their mother, stopped Betty. Everyone was afraid to complain directly to Betty. If they did, Betty would turn on them even more spitefully before.
According to Betty, nobody’s children were good enough – they were all ugly, stupid, ignorant, mean or bad. They were too fat or too skinny; they ate too much or too little; they ate too fast or too slow. They dreamed too big for their non-existent talents.
Betty laughed joyfully when she pounced on someone’s mistakes, no matter how trivial or irrelevant. Their choices were always wrong, their clothes and manners were wrong. Betty always knew better and rubbed everyone’s nose in it.
Some of Betty’s reasons excuses and justifications for why she was so hostile were:
“Those are my feelings. It’s my honest opinion. You wouldn’t want me to repress how I feel, would you?”
“You're too sensitive.”
“I’m doing it for their own good. You’re too soft on them. They’ll never get better if you don’t correct them.”
“I had to take it when I was a kid. It’ll make them stronger and tougher.”
“They have to learn to take it. They’ll get it like that in the real-world.”
Of course, everyone can have a bad day and be grumpy. But with Betty, it was everyday and it was relentless, hostile and mean-spirited.
Bullies want us to try to argue with their reasons, excuses and justifications. The more we argue, the more we’re engaged without their ever changing. If we make a good point, they’ll change the subject and give another excuse or cite a different time when they were right. They’ll never admit that they need to change; that’s how we know they’re bullies.
Or, if we challenge them, their feelings will be so hurt that they’ll withdraw into a very loud silent treatment. And it’ll go on forever until we give up, admit we were cruel, promise never to attack them again and simply accept the abuse. That’s how we know they’re bullies.
What can Jane do? Remember, all tactics have to be designed to fit our specific situations, what we want to accomplish and the limits of our comfort zones.
Jane once asked Betty not to say anything to Jane’s children; Betty was hurting them and Jane had told them take it because Betty was their aunt. But Betty hadn’t changed. Finally, Jane decided that she wasn’t going to expose herself and her family to any more of Betty’s abuse. She’d end the unrelenting negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame and guilt-trips.
Once again, she asked Betty to stop talking the way she did and to find nice things to say. She asked Betty to be nicer, kinder and more polite to family than she would be to strangers. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty she wanted her to feel differently but if she couldn’t, she still wanted her to take charge of her tongue and to repress herself; being an abusive bully is worse than repressing herself. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty that if the brutality continued, she wouldn’t come if Betty was present. That would cause a rift in the family and it would be Betty’s fault. Betty didn’t stop.
Jane told the family she’d decided that she’d never let bullies treat her and her family the way Betty did. She had to take charge of keeping them safe from people who polluted their emotional environment. She asked them to choose the behavior they’d support even if that meant they all told Betty to change or they’d stop inviting her. Jane reminded them of what Mr. Spock said, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake of the one.” But Betty didn’t stop.
Jane decided that behavior was more important than blood. More important than victimizing her children by subjecting them to their Aunt Betty’s viciousness, was setting a good example by protecting them from abuse. She didn’t want them to experience the anxiety, stress and discouragement that had accompanied visits with Betty. That meant they didn’t see Betty any more. That also meant they saw the rest of the family only on one-to-one occasions when Betty was not present.
Over the years, the same conversations were replayed after extended family gathering except in Jane’s house. There, Jane and her family had a wonderful time; free from criticism, bullying and abuse; free from the endless re-hashing of Betty’s latest attacks.
Once Jane had cleared the abuse out of her family’s life, they were able to find friends they loved being with.
With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation. We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying. We can overcome childhood rules to give in to or argue with bullies’ excuses, reasons and justifications. We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of adults getting over their early training and then stopping bullies. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).
Many types of family bullying are obvious, whether it’s physical or verbal harassment, nastiness or abuse, and targets or witnesses usually jump in to stop it. The typical perpetrators are mothers and fathers bullying each other or the kids, sibling bullies, bullying step-parents or kids sneakily bullying a step-parent in order to drive a wedge between a biological parent and their new partner.
But many people allow extended family members to abuse their children or their spouses, especially at the holidays, because they’re afraid that protest will split the family into warring factions that will never be healed. They’re afraid they’ll be blamed for destroying family unity or they accept a social code that proclaims some image of “family” as the most important value.
Except in a few, rare situations, that’s a big mistake.
A rare exception might be an aged, senile and demented, or a dying family member whose behavior is tolerated temporarily while the children are protected from the abuse.
But a more typical example of what shouldn’t be tolerated was a grandpa who had a vicious tongue, especially when he drank. He angrily told the grandchildren they were weak, selfish and dumb. He ripped them down for every fault – too smart, too stupid; too fat, too skinny; too short, too tall; too pretty, too ugly; too demanding, too shy. He also focused on fatal character flaws; born lazy, born failure, born evil, born unwanted.
For good measure, he verbally assaulted his own children and their spouses – except for the favorite ones. He even did this around the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables when the parents and their spouses were present. He was always righteous and right.
I assume you’ve asked him to stop or given him dirty looks, but that only seemed to encourage him to attack you and your children more. Or he apologized, but didn’t stop for even minute. When you arrived late and tried to leave early, he attacked your family even more. He blamed you for disrupting the family. The rest of the adults also said that it’s your fault you aren’t kind and family oriented enough to put up with him.
What else can you do?
I think you have to step back and look at the big picture – a view of culture, society and what’s important in life. Only then can you decide what fights are important enough to fight and only then will you have the strength, courage and perseverance to act effectively.
Compare two views: one in which blood family is all important.
We are supposed to do anything for family and put up with anything from family because we need family in order to survive or because family is the greatest good. This view says that if you put anything above family, especially your individual conscience or needs, you’ll destroy the foundations of civilized life and expose yourself in times of need. In this view, we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our children to our biological family – by blood or by marriage.
We can see the benefits of this view. When you’re old and sick, who else will take care of you but kith and kin? In this view, the moral basis of civilization is the bond of blood and marriage. Violate that relationship, bring disunity into the family by standing up for your individual views and you jeopardize everything important and traditional.
In my experience, this view is usually linked to the view that men and inherited traditions should rule. Boys are supposed to torment girls because that teaches them how to become men. Girls are supposed to submit because that’s their appointed role – sanctioned by religion and culture. If men are vicious to women and children, if old people are vicious to the young, that’s tolerated.
Contrast this view with an alternative in which behavior is more important than blood.
Your individual conscience and rules of acceptable behavior are more important than traditions that enable brutality and pain generation after generation. What’s most important in this view is that you strive to create an environment with people who fill your heart with joy – a family of your heart and spirit.
If you choose the first view, you’ll never be able to stop bullying and abuse. Your children will see who has the power and who bears the pain. They’ll model the family dynamics they saw during the holidays. You’ve abdicated the very individual conscience and power that you need to protect yourself and your children. You’ll wallow in ineffective whining and complaining, hoping that someone else will solve your problem.
The best you can hope for outside the family, when your children face bullies who have practiced being bullies or being bullied at home, is that school authorities will do what’s right and protect your children from bullies. But how can you expect more courage from them than you have? Or why shouldn’t they accept the culture which tolerates bullying and abuse, just like you have?
Are you the biological child in the family or merely a spouse?
Is your spouse willing to be as strong as you?
Who’s the perpetrator – a grandparent, another adult or spouse, a cousin, a more distant relative?
Do you see the perpetrator every year or once a decade?
Do other adults acknowledge the abuse also?
Expert coaching and good books and CDs like “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” will help you make the necessary inner shifts and also develop a stepwise action plan that fits your family situation and newly developed comfort zone. For example, see the case studies of Kathy, Jake and Ralph.
Keep in mind that while you hope the perpetrator will change his or her behavior, your goal is really to have an island with people who make every occasion joyous. You must be prepared to go all the way to withdrawing from family events or to starting a fight that will split the family into two camps. But at least you’ll be in a camp in which you feel comfortable spending the holidays.
Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes when one person speaks up, many others join in and the combined weight of opinion forces an acceptable change. Sometimes if you say you’ll withdraw, you’ll be seen as the most difficult person in the room and the rest of the family will make the abuser change or ostracize him or her.
Jane was stuck in an internal war. Every time she made some progress toward goals she’d been pursuing for years – cleaned her house, did things on her to-do list, met people she’d wanted to, signed up for classes toward a better job, courageously risked being honest – she’d start beating herself up in ways she was familiar with since childhood.
A part of her would say, in an old, familiar voice, “Who do you think you are, you’ll never succeed, you’ll fall back into being a failure, you’re fat and ugly, you’re not good enough to stay on track, you’re weak at your core, you’ll never do the right thing, you’ll fail like you always do, no one likes you, no one will love you, you’ll be alone all your life.”
Then she’d isolate herself and start picking on herself physically. That’d only make things worse. She’d feel ashamed and guilty. “Maybe they’re right,” she’d think. “I’m not good enough. I’ll always be a mess. I’ll never change. I’ll never succeed.”
She’d become angry at her parents and all the people who’d taken advantage of her, at all the people who weren’t supportive now and finally at herself. And the cycle would continue; a little success leading to self-loathing and predictions of failure, followed by anger at everyone in her past and present, followed by more anger and self-loathing. After several wasted days, she’d get herself together to try once more, but the emotional and spiritual cost of each cycle was huge.
Self-bullying– negative self-talk, an internal war between the side of you that fights to do better and the side that seems to despise you, that’s full of self-loathing and self-abuse – can go on a whole lifetime. Of course, the effects can be devastating – anxiety and stress, discouragement and depression, loss of confidence and self-esteem, huge emotional swings that drive good people away and attract bullies and predators.
Perhaps the worst effect is a sense of desperation and panic, isolation and loneliness – it feels like this has been going on forever and doesn’t look like it will ever end; every failure feels like the end of the world; like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You feel helpless and are sure that it’s hopeless.
This is not a war between the left and right sides of our brains. This is usually not our being taken over by an evil spirit that needs exorcised psychologically.
This is usually a battle between two sides of us that split apart because of terrible, overwhelming pressure when we were kids. Back then, we didn’t know how to cope with the horror so we split into two strategies that have been battling with childlike intensity and devotion ever since.
On the one hand, we fight to feel inspired and centered and to do our best; to be courageous and bold and fierce; to try hard, be joyous and hope for success. On the other hand, we fight to make us docile and not try to rise above our meager lot in life, to accept what they tell us and give up struggling against them so they’ll let us survive, to motivate ourselves by whipping ourselves so we’ll make enough effort and do the right things, and maybe then they’ll give us something in return and we’ll have those feelings of peace and joy.
Both voices want us to survive and to feel centered, peaceful and filled with joy. Each takes an opposite path to get there. Instead of a psychological exorcism, we need an internal reconciliation and a release from old battles with our external oppressors and between our internal, battling voices.
The inner goal is clear: We’ll be whole and unified, both sides will be working together toward the same end (http://www.bulliesbegoneblog.com/2008/04/25/getting-over-parents-who-wound-their-children-the-2nd-stage-of-growing-up-and-leaving-home/#more-35): the different possibilities for action will be presented to us in the encouraging voices of coaches; we’ll be inspired and motivated by encouragement, not whipping: we’ll have an adult sense of our strength and capability; we’ll feel like we can cope successfully without tight control over everything and we’ll act in a timely manner; situations won’t put us into a panic; mistakes won’t be a portent of doom.
For example, Jane finally made internal peace. Her warring sides accepted that they had the same outcome – making a good life for her, filling her with the joy she’d always wanted to feel. They realized that neither side could defeat the other; their only hope was to work together using adult strategies of motivating her to take actions that would help her succeed. They saw that her situation now, in middle age, was very different from when she was a helpless child and had to depend on parents who seemed to despise her character, personality and style.
According to numerous reports, a teenager was bullied at West Middle School in metro Denver. The boy had pencils, markers and a calculator taken; he was called fat; he was called “gay” because he was involved in musical theater; because he was from musical theater, he was called a “Nazi.” Eventually, he tried fighting back against his tormentors. But he wasn’t big or strong enough and was beaten severely. He suffered a broken collar bone and head injury. The published picture of him is self-evident. Now that the case has become public, the community is in an uproar and the Cherry Creek School District has responded by expelling the bully. The bullied boy has reported that the bully threatened to beat him more when he returns. Three other students, who also threatened to beat up the victim, have been required to sign contracts that they won’t harass the boy. That’s nice of the school district to go that far.
Of course the legal wrangling will go on for a long time.
There’s so much to say about this example of hostility, abuse and brutality. I want to comment on only a few areas.
The adults failed. Whether they blame the legal system or say they didn’t know; they failed. Since the severe beating happened at the end of November, don’t you think that every student in school knew what was happening?
The parents of the bully and his collaborators failed. They are supposed to know their children’s character and to stop their children’s bullying.
The teachers failed. They are supposed to know who torments, abuses and bully’s another student and they are supposed to stop it. They allowed a hostile, abusive environment to continue. If the typical educational approaches don’t work rapidly, they are supposed to intervene in other ways.
The principal failed. The principal is supposed to set a tone of zero tolerance. The principal is supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullies. If the teachers don’t stop it, the principal is supposed to stop it and then get rid of those cowardly and/or ignorant teachers. The worst beating happened at the end of November and the principal did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.
The administrators in the school district failed. The administrators are supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullying. If the principal doesn’t stop it, the school district administrators are supposed to step in and then get rid of that cowardly and/or ignorant principal. The worst beating happened at the end of November and the district administrators did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.
How can we hold up these teachers, principal and school district administrators as models for children? They have failed as models. Despite, or maybe because of, their colleges and universities, their degrees and certifications, their possible expertise in some course matter, they have shown themselves to be ignorant or cowardly or inept or all three. They have failed the public trust and are unfit to be teachers, principal or administrators.
They should not be allowed to hide behind a poor legal system. We all know that there are schools in the most violent locations in which courageous administrators, principals and teachers bullying. And they do it in the face of the same.
The 14 year-old boy who was bullied has shown himself to be courageous. He has succeeded. At first he did what we all try to do. We try accommodating in hopes that the bully will move on. We ask bullies to stop; we take the bullying; we try to understand what lousy home lives we think bullies must have; we try to rise above it. These tactics may stop many kids who are temporarily trying on bullying to see what it feels like, but those tactics don’t stop dedicated, relentless bullies. They are not effective for teaching children to stop bullies at school.
Eventually that boy fought. I say he succeeded because, even though he was severely beaten he did what was necessary to try to stop his tormentors. He lost the fight but he emerges as the one person who is not a coward in this affair. He can hold his head up high all his life. He can keep his self-esteem. He can judge the adults as cowards and failures. I hope he is resilient enough to bounce back and continues to resist to bullies the rest of his life. I hope that when he becomes an adult with more choices, he creates a personal life that is bully-free. Sometimes, a tormented teen can fight back and win – as in the case of the “Teen acquitted in punch.”
Of course, bullies will always exist . America is not unique, nor are we the worst people in the world. We are outraged and we will try to make better systems. And more important, we still must train , seek and hire people who can act effectively, no matter how poor the system is at any moment. And we must educate and prepare individuals to be as courageous as that 14 year-old boy.